Here's what worked, and what didn't.

By Hannah Orenstein
Aug 09, 2019 @ 12:00 pm
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Here is my deeply uncool confession: for the past two years, I’ve kept a spreadsheet that tracks how many followers I have on Instagram.

It started during the summer of 2017, after I had written and sold my first novel, Playing with Matches, which would hit shelves the following summer. I had heard somewhere that I could expect a measly one percent of my followers to actually buy my book. Book sales were important because if my novel was a total flop, no publisher would ever give me money to write a book again. And that would be a problem because my goal was to write novels forever and ever. It was July and I was on vacation with my family in Maine. I sat in a bathing suit at the kitchen table with my mom and pulled up my Instagram. There were 1,931 people following my travel pics, cat photos, and OOTDs — my mom was impressed. But I saw that number very differently. I pictured selling just 19 copies of the book I had poured my heart into. I imagined becoming an utter failure. So that day, I decided I’d grow my Instagram following, no matter what. At the bare minimum, I wanted to hit 5,000 followers, if not more.

Over the next two years, I tried countless tactics I borrowed from Instagram influencers and nicked from my friends who work in social media. Change happened slowly but surely. I’m not Instagram-famous by any means, but my Instagram follower count grew by 400 percent and currently sits at 7,623. As for my career as an author? I’ve sold more than 19 copies, enough to secure a deal for two more books. My new novel, Love at First Like (out this week), is about an Instagram influencer and jeweler who accidentally leads her 100,000 followers to believe that she’s engaged; when the mistake proves to be good for business, she decides to keep up the ruse by trying to find a fake fiancé.

My first few attempts at gaining followers were nothing shocking: I paid close attention to photos I liked or that I saw performed well on Instagram, and attempted to take similar ones. Every influencer and her mother posted photos of the millennial pink velvet couch at the trendy new West Village restaurant While We Were Young, so I did, too.

I saw people gushing over photos of brightly swirling bath bombs, so I bought some from LUSH and staged my own bathtub still life. I noticed that #shelfies of meticulously organized beauty products were popular, so I spent an hour one night in my bathroom photographing different arrangements of face masks and perfumes until I found one that looked right.

At first, I was too self-conscious to use hashtags; I worried they’d make me look desperate. (Of course, I was desperate.) At the time, I was working at Seventeen.com, and so I asked my friend Kelsey Stiegman, the site’s style editor and an Instagram influencer in her own right. She insisted I should use hashtags, so I awkwardly added a few to each post. The more I did it, the less embarrassing it felt.

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Despite my efforts, I had single-digit gains most weeks, and one week, I even lost a dozen followers. But then, Kelsey tagged me in her Instagram Story, and I gained 31 followers overnight. A week later, I met another editor friend for drinks; she had a sizable following, too, and tagged me in her Story. Another 38 followers. Was this the trick? I’m an introvert who’s had the same six close friends since forever — the idea of social-climbing my way up the influencer food chain felt gross to me.

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Luckily, I had a better idea. Gossip Girl’s 10th anniversary was around the corner. I was a diehard Blair Waldorf groupie when I was in high school, and I knew Seventeen.com’s readers still loved the show. I pitched an idea to my editor — I wanted to dress like Blair for a week. She told me a photoshoot full of Blair’s outfits wasn’t in our budget. No problem, I said. What if the photos are just iPhone pics? She said yes. Every day that week, I piled on headbands, tights, and fussy collars. I even found the white Marc by Marc Jacobs dress that Blair wears to the Vitamin Water White Party in Season Two. I uploaded each from my phone to my Instagram, and then embedded the posts into the draft of the Seventeen.com story. When the story published on the anniversary, the photos racked up a thousand likes each, as I had guessed they might. By the end of the week, after it had been syndicated by Seventeen’s sister site Cosmo, and run on both magazines’ Snapchats, I had gained 1,869 new followers.

But still, I wanted more (and I recognize that writing articles for popular magazines isn't a strategy that's within reach for the vast majority of people). My painstakingly shot succulent photos and brunch flat lays weren’t cutting it anymore, so I turned to some friends who worked as social media editors for advice. One told me to leave comments on celebrities’ posts. Another suggested liking comments on already-viral posts. The logic behind both was the same: people might get curious and check out my feed to see who I am. A third friend suggested gaming the app’s algorithm by responding to every single comment I got, but only days later, so Instagram would register activity on that photo across a longer period of time and continue to promote the post. I tested out each strategy, but the returns weren’t amazing, especially considering how time-consuming it was.

One night, I went out with a friend of a friend who was trying to make a name for herself as the host of a new podcast. Over wine and cheese, she lowered her voice and admitted that she was paying a service to buy followers. Unlike some growth-hacking services that sent thousands of bots to follow your account, this one hooked your account up to an algorithm that strategically followed accounts that already followed people like you, waited a few days for them to follow back, and then unfollowed if they didn’t. She said it cost $50 a week after an $80 initiation fee. I was hesitant, but I had heard from other influencer friends that “everyone does it.” I emailed the podcast host’s contact that very night and bought a three-week trial.

While the algorithm ran on my account, I monitored my following obsessively. But by the end of the trial, I had only gained 147 followers, which had worked out to cost $1.50 each. It didn’t seem worth it to me. I didn’t renew my membership.

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The next service I tried promised to deliver 1,500 to 3,000 real followers a month (no bots) for just $45. It sounded too good to be true… and two weeks later, when I had only gained 100 followers, I realized it was. I emailed my contact four times, asking first for an explanation, then a refund, but never heard back. Mortified, I called my credit card company, explained that I had gotten scammed, and asked them to block the service from ever charging me again. (Instagram has since cracked down on these third-party services; the ones I used have shuttered.)

When my first book hit shelves almost a year into my Instagram experiment, I had around 6,000 followers. What struck me most about the launch wasn’t how many likes or followers I got (surely, there must have been more than normal? I can’t recall), but the overwhelming sensation of support from the app’s community of book lovers. People took pictures of themselves reading my book on beaches, in coffee shops, and in one particularly amazing case, on a grassy stretch of Central Park, directly across from a stranger reading her own copy of the same book. The launch felt like a success to me, but that had nothing to do with stats or spreadsheets. 

I haven’t paid much attention to my following count in the past year. I’ve been too busy, well, writing a novel about an Instagram influencer who makes high-stakes personal and professional decisions based on the whims of her followers. Even so, it’s clear that my number has drifted upward — and plenty of the Amazon and Goodreads reviews about my books note that they first heard of me on social media, which makes me feel like this whole quest was sort of, kind of, actually worth it.

Courtesy

I don’t stress so much about getting the perfect photo anymore, because there’s no longer a goal in sight. I only bother with hashtags when I post about my books. I love trading book suggestions, travel recs, and even relationship advice with my followers over DMs — it feels like I have a real community on Instagram now that extends far beyond my IRL social circle. And there’s been one very sweet, always startling side effect I never predicted: With increasing frequency, followers have stopped me in the street, on train platforms, and in bookstores and bars to introduce themselves. Even my boyfriend, who rarely uses Instagram but often appears in my photos, has been recognized in public an alarming number of times. By pretending to have a perfect life online, I’ve made my offline life pretty great, too.

In retrospect, I probably put too much pressure on myself to hit a certain follower goal. I recognize how silly and stressful that year was. But I also don’t regret it. That’s the truth — no filter.

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